Movies That Everyone Should See: “Raging Bull”

So, for the second time, [the Pharisees]
Summoned the man who had been blind and said: 
“Speak the truth before God.
We know this fellow is a sinner.” 
“Whether or not he is a sinner, I do not know,” 
The man replied.
“All I know is this:
Once I was blind and now I can see.”

- John IX, 24-26
The New English Bible

Giacobbe “Jake” LaMotta was a professional boxer whose fighting career began in 1941 and lasted over a decade, through 1954. He fought an astonishing 106 professional bouts and posted a record of 83-19 and 4 draws, with 30 knockouts. In 1949 he won the World Middleweight Championship against Marcel Cerdan, and successfully defended his title in two fights, before losing it to Sugar Ray Robinson in 1951.

He was known as “The Bronx Bull”.

His bouts against Robinson are the stuff of boxing lore. The two fought six times over the course of their career. LaMotta only won once, although the outcome of another was a controversial split decision. Their final bout, however, the only title bout amongst their rivalry, was dubbed “The Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre”. On February 14th, 1951, Robinson pummeled LaMotta for 13 rounds. The fight was eventually stopped by the referee, TKOing LaMotta. Robinson, however, was unable to knock LaMotta down.

After his retirement, LaMotta led a checkered life. He ran a nightclub in Miami for a period. Riding the popularity of his boxing career, he reportedly dated such stars as Jayne Mansfield and Hedi Lamar. But in 1958 he served six months on a chain gang in Dade County, Florida for corrupting the morals of a minor. And in 1960, he admitted to taking a dive to a Senate subcommittee investigating organized crime’s involvement in boxing. Needing to change professions, he tried his hand at acting, and landed small roles in movies (most notably, “The Hustler”), and appeared in several episodes of “Car 54, Where Are You?” Eventually, he turned to stand-up comedy.

In 1970, he published an autobiography, “Raging Bull: My Story”

In 1973, Robert De Niro was on location in Sicily filming “The Godfather Part II” when he read the book.

He was struck by the character. He felt LaMotta was a primal force. Someone direct and without complications. A tragic hero. He could envision himself playing the role, and began to pursue the project. The next year, he brought it to the attention of his friend, director Martin Scorcese, who was filming “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore” at the time.

Scorcese wasn’t interested.

He couldn’t see the allure of a boxing film. The world of professional fighters didn’t make sense for him. He couldn’t latch on to the motivations of two people to step into the ring and beat each other. He wasn’t even a fan of sports. De Niro didn’t give up, however. He kept sporadically bringing the biography up to Scorsese in the following years.

Ironically, it wasn’t until Scorsese was embroiled in a fight of his own that he would embrace the project.

“At first you felt like you could make five films at once. And then you wound up spending four days in bed every week because you were exhausted and your body couldn’t take it.”

-Martin Scorsese

In the years immediately following Taxi Driver, Martin Scorsese started heavily abusing drugs, primarily cocaine, but also Quaaludes and alcohol in order to balance out. Scorsese has described that time as a two-year abyss from which he was lucky to have come out alive. He was charting a seriously self-destructive course. In August, 1978, while he was attending the Telluride Film Festival, he suffered an overdose. He suffered massive internal bleeding due to a combination of factors; the thin air, unfavorable interactions with his asthma medication and prescription pills he was taking, and the cocaine he was abusing. He nearly died, and needed to be hospitalized.

De Niro visited him in the hospital and tried to help him in his recovery by encouraging him to tackle the project of “Raging Bull”. Scorsese finally saw reason to do the project… he now could see the boxing ring as an allegory for life. He agreed to do the movie for De Niro’s sake, and it became an extremely personal picture for him. Scorsese has claimed De Niro saved his life by getting him back to work. It helped him rehabilitate from drug addiction. Although only in his late 30s, Scorsese, approached “Raging Bull” as if it were the last movie he would ever make.

Not everyone was as enthusiastic, however. United Artists’ studio brass were reluctant to finance the film due to the profanity and violence in the screenplay. Nor were they enthused about Scorsese’s intention to shoot the film in black and white.

Producers Robert Chartoff and Irwin Winkler were supportive of the script and of Scorsese’s vision, however, and they had something United Artists wanted very badly. “Rocky II”. “Rocky” had been an enormous financial success, and the sequel (which would hit theatres in 1979) was about to start filming. Chartoff and Winkler used the leverage they had on that movie in order to coerce United artists into backing “Raging Bull”.

On the project was greenlit, it needed to be cast, and there was another pivotal role aside from De Niro’s LaMotta. During his research for his draft of the screenplay (Scorsese and De Niro would complete the final version), Paul Schrader discovered in the archives of a local newspaper that there were two LaMottas… Jake LaMotta had a brother, who he didn’t mention at all in his autobiography. Schrader knew he had an angle for the screenplay.

Joe Pesci began his career in acting as a child. In the 50s, he was a regular on the variety show “Star Time Kids”. He was also a guitarist and singer… He actually released an album in the 60s under the name Joe Ritchie, titled “Little Joe Sure Can Sing”. The album flopped.

He had actually given up acting, and was managing his restaurant in the Bronx when Scorsese and De Niro approached him about the role. De Niro had seen Pesci years earlier in “The Death Collecter”, and thought he would be perfect for the part. He was. Pesci was completely perfect for De Niro’s brother. Similar looking enough, and able to convey the same hotheadness of De Niro’s LaMotta.

In turn, Pesci recommended Frank Vincent and Cathy Moriarty. Scorsese agreed to screen test them both. Moriarty was young, and had never acted, but she had the right look for the role. At her screen test, De Niro tossed her some improv and she responded well. Scorsese decided on her right then.

She more than held her own. She would be nominated for an Academy Award.

Her performance is all the more impressive considering she’s acting against one of the greatest acting performances of all time, turned in by Robert De Niro. Apparently, De Niro was warranted in pushing so hard for the project to get made. It turned into a legendary role.

In order to play LaMotta in his prime, De Niro whipped himself into shape. He worked with the real La Motta for almost an entire year, boxing some 1,000 rounds and packing on 20 pounds of muscle. He learned to mimic La Motta’s fighting style, and actually became a fairly formidable boxer. He had seen too many boxing pictures where the actors didn’t actually look like fighters, and was determined that wouldn’t occur here. He got so good that he won two out of three Middleweight bouts he had under the ring name of “Young LaMotta”.

He famously needed to gain an enormous amount of weight in order to play the older LaMotta. The producers tried to talk him out of it, tried to push him towards using makeup and a fat suit. De Niro insisted. He needed to gain the weight in order to get into the mindset. Thus, production shut down for four months while De Niro went on an eating binge around Europe. When he returned, he had gained 70 pounds. The rest of the film was shot on a rushed schedule, out of concern for his health.

De Niro, of course, wasn’t the only one who put forth a legendary effort. “Raging Bull” is arguably Scorsese’s work as a director.

As opposed to crafting standard boxing scenes, he turns the ring into an artistic arena, showcasing his own skills. The matches he brings to the screen are highly stylized, subjective, operatic dances. A brutal ballet. He takes the violence of the sport, filters it through the camera, and puts onscreen a poem in black and white and blood.

Scorsese story boarded the fight scenes, in order to get the exact shots he wanted. He filmed it differently than other boxing films, using a studio environment whenever possible for maximum control. He used a variety of film techniques to establish mood. In the first fight against Robinson the ring is large and the arena brightly lit, to convey the bright possibilities. Elation. In the final fight against Robinson, he shot with flames just beneath the camera in order to create a mirage effect. Smoke billows as if they’re descending into hell. He uses slow motion, accelerated frame rates, close-ups, zooms, quick editing. He puts on a virtual master class of directorial techniques.

Frank Warner, who did the sound design, did an incredible job as well. For the ring announcers, they used the original broadcast recordings of the fight announcers. He used animal noises at times during the fights for thematic underscoring, and used gunshots within the sounds of flashbulbs going off. Sound effects for punches landing were made by squashing melons and tomatoes. Perhaps the most effective thing he did, however, was to suggest that at certain points they should take the sound away… resulting in silence at key moments. At the end of production, he burned all his effects, so he wouldn’t be tempted to use them again.

The final product is a portrait of a man driven by primal urges. Lust, and anger. Jealousy. He’s inarticulate. Violent. Paranoid. There are unflinching scenes of domestic violence. LaMotta strikes out wildly at everyone in his life, and then is incapable of properly expressing his sorrow afterwards. We’re shown his career trajectory from hungry up-and-comer to unsteady champion. His only redeeming virtue appears to be that he refuses to go down.

Jake LaMotta is a difficult person to empathize with, a man who’s difficult to find sympathy for. His low-class mentality leads him to beat his wife and beat his brother. The anger which propels him to the heights of the sport of boxing leave him woefully ill-equipped for the world outside the ring (in itself a condemnation of the sport).

He’s a brutal, bestial man.

But therein, to me, lies the central virtue of “Raging Bull”. LaMotta is not an animal. He suffers the consequences of a life lived by instinct, and in turn pays the price for his rage and urges, but he does have feelings, he does have a heart and a soul. He weeps. In the cell, he is powerless. He has no one else to hurt, and finally realizes he’s only been hurting himself. At that moment, it’s “I’m not an animal”, that he wails… and he’s not. Even the most irredeemable seeming person is still a human being, even the lowest of the low is a candidate for redemption. Worthy of our compassion.

Whether LaMotta receives his redemption or not is left ambiguous, in my opinion. It’s unclear whether his brother Joey will truly call him and mend fences, or if he was just saying that to try to get away after their chance meeting outside the bodega. I feel that ultimately, “Raging Bull” is a humanizing film, regardless. It challenges us to look upon the despicable, the detestable… and relate. To find the humanity within a character we would much more likely rather discard. Write off as a savage. An animal.

United Artists was unable to campaign for “Raging Bull” for Oscars consideration… at the time, they were in the midst of serious financial difficulties in the wake of “Heaven’s Gate”.

Nonetheless, “Raging Bull” was nominated for 8 Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Cinematography, Best Sound, and Best Editing. It won for Best Editing, and won De Niro his second Oscar (his first was for Best Supporting Actor for “The Godfather Part II”). He also won that year’s Golden Globe, and received awards from the New York Film Critics, Los Angeles Film Critics, and National Board of Review.

On the American Film Institute’s initial “100 Years… 100 Movies” listing, “Raging Bull” ranked #24. Ten years later, with the release of the 10th Anniversary Edition, it had risen all the way to #4, ranking only behind “Citizen Kane”, “The Godfather” and “Casablanca”. They’ve also selected it as the greatest American Sports film.

Sight and Sound (the British Film Institute’s official magazine) has “Raging Bull” #53 on its recently released poll of the greatest films of all time, worldwide.

It’s a challenging move. One with no easy answers. A detailed character study of a person most viewers would rather not examine so closely. It’s one of the finest movies of one of the greatest directors of all time, and one of the most legendary performances by one of the greatest actors of all time. It’s been widely hailed as a masterpiece by both critics and audiences alike.

It’s definitely a “Movie That Everyone Should See“.

For a counter-point, check out “Classically Shitty: Raging Bull” at our friend Brik Haus’ blog, Awesomely Shitty!

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36 thoughts on “Movies That Everyone Should See: “Raging Bull”

  1. Clearly this is definitely an movie I need to see.
    Sound like this Lomotta guy was destined to be a fighter.
    On what I assume is his website(officialjakelomatta.com),
    it states his own father challenged him to fight neighborhood kids as a youth, so passersby would toss change in the ring. His father would use the money to help pay the rent – crazy stuff. This quote you mentioned Fogs is wild stuff as kind of the second coming of Scorsese and the beginning of Pesci, of course we know he plays the “bull” in Martin’s Goodfellas, – wow! Great post.

    • Thanks S, as always, your support is deeply appreciated.

      My advice is to bump this one up your must see list, and prepare yourself for a challenging movie. Its really dark. Brutal at times. It’s gonna be tough to get through. But at the end, you’ll be a better film fan for it. Check it out and let me know what you think. It’s definitely, definitely, definitely worthy of your time.

  2. Excellent directing style, yes. And I understand its a masterpiece, but I just don’t like it. Its because I’m one of the viewers you talked about, who has no desire to study this particular character. Also, you say Scorsese didn’t see the appeal of a boxing movie; I still don’t see it.

    • Well, I guess a lot of times, “Liking” and appreciating dont necessarily go hand in hand. It’s a very difficult movie, even I have to acknowledge that. But its not designed to be a crowd pleaser, as say, “Top Gun” was, last week’s MTESS.

      This is a brutal depiction of some of the darker elements of life. Characters in society we may not be comfotable with. But its beautifully done. And there definitely are themes to be mined. It’s worth a reconsideration if you’re ever inclined to revisit it and re-evaluate, Ian. ;)

  3. This is definitely a movie that I would go and see. I love films that not only are action-packed, but have a really deep story behind them. It’s good because that what can engage an audience to want to keep watching the movie further than they have, and draw them into the characters and the setting more.

      • Ah. Well, I would absolutely recommend it, it’s undeniably a classic.

        Yet, I’d have to caution it’s very dark. “Action packed” may not be the most appropriate term, lol. Unless you count brutality in the ring and domestic violence at home “Action Packed”. :D

        It’s a must for any serious film fan, though Wes, you should definitely check it out!

      • Yeah, I probably shouldn’t have used that phrase. :p I just meant in general. Never would I use those words for situations such as that. But this film is definitely interesting, and I’ll be sure to check it out!

  4. Raging Bull is a masterpiece without doubt. Though I dont consider it Scorsese or De Niro’s best work. Though I would rate it in the top 200 of all time, I wouldnt rate it near he top of that list nor would I consider it the best boxing film ever made.

    But is it great, ohhh make no mistake about that! Part of its bold violent nature and old school black and white film making feel contribute mightily to that.

    • I’d agree with your statement on many points, actually.

      Definitely not my favorite Scorsese, though it might be hard to argue that any of his others are better. I might actually argue Taxi Driver is better, and for SURE “Goodfellas” is my favorite,

      Gotta be De Niro’s best work though, no? I was trying to think of anything better all weekend, and every time I wound up siding with this role. What would you say is better? I’m open to persuasion, here, I just think that it’s a hard case to make.

      I don’t consider it the best boxing movie either (“Rocky”, natch) because this isn’t really a movie about boxing…

      It’d be top 100 for me, top 50 even.

  5. It took me a couple of viewings to fully appreciate Raging Bull, but it is a superb film in my eyes. Boxing is a sport that people often either love or hate, so that could well dictate whether they appreciate the film or not. I’m not a boxing fan in the slightest so I wasn’t overly enthralled on my first watch. When I got past the boxing, however, and got into the characters, I enjoyed it so much more.

    • Yeah, for me, it’s not even the boxing so much as the violence outside the ring. And his fall from grace! Holy god did it hurt seeing him take a hammer to his belt. God damn!!

      But once you can see through the pain a bit, the movie does shine brilliantly, doesn’t it? I love it.

    • Thanks Dave! :D

      For “Favorite”, my favorite Scorsese is easily Goodfellas.

      If we’re talking “Greatest”, though, I’d probably go “Taxi Driver”, too. Sight and Sound did, too. Lol.

      It’s close. They’re both great…

  6. Lamotta is the anti-hero to Rocky’s hero. Realism versus fairytale. Scorsese never lets you forget men get crippled in the ring, men get killed! I think Scorsese has as many problems with women as Lamotta does. He shows it in so many of his movies, “Mean Streets”, “Taxi Driver”, Raging Bull”. Trust ,acceptance, so many walls between his male characters and the women that love them! With LaMotta you have to add violence and jail time. Make no apologies for “Raging Bull”! It’s a masterpiece! Whether average viewers are ready to accept it or not.
    Your review is the best you’ve done to date! I had my hunches but didn’t know that DeNiro was the prime mover on this project. We all owe him a debt of thanks for all his efforts behind the scenes. Even today his production company continues with films of quality. Dan, your work on this really shines!

    • Thanks Ray. You didn’t knock me down… LOL

      I dont know about Scorsese’s problems with women, I think he tends to deal with characters who treat women poorly and the movies need to reflect that in order to maintain their realism, but you are right, it’s not like his movie are models to build healthy relationships around. LOL

      I wouldnt make apologies for “Raging Bull”, I’m just aware of the fact that it takes a lot of heat for being “inacessible”. There’s no one to root for, and its painful to watch. That needs to be addressed in any honest assessment of the film. I can’t just gloss over it and be like “Its fun for the whole family!! :D

  7. Great movie. It’s true that they don’t make them like this anymore :( As you noted, LaMotta isn’t always easy to root for but he is always thoroughly compelling thanks to DeNiro’s legendary performance. Great review, Dan!

    • Thanks Cap! That’s nice of you to say.

      He’s definitely NOT an easy character to get behind. I dont think any of them are… but you’re right. De Niro gives a performance that you can’t even look away from! It’s way to astonishing! :D

  8. Raging Bull didn’t blow me away on first viewing, but I now consider it one of the greatest films of all time. Dark and brutal as it is, the movie has a lot of soul and emotions at its core. Not to mention it’s perfectly crafted by Scorsese.

    • Yeah, Scorsese is like a surgeon here, he’s so precise. Those fight scenes are still incredible. Awesome filmmaking, right there.

      It’s a tough movie to get used to. It’s still a difficult movie to watch, for me, it creates a lot of emotional pain.That’s an enormous credit to it for a movie that I’ve seen upwards of ten times, you know?

      It definitely is one of the greatest…. no doubt

  9. An absolute classic. Great choice Fogs! In seeing it again recently, I was struck by how awesome Pesci was. Reminded me of how he stole so many scenes in Goodfellas. When he has the fight outside the Copa and is smashing Frank Vincent’s head into the car door- whoa.

    • They’re good friends actually. I’m sure you know… but they go way back together. Used to do a musical act together, I think. Pesci actually recommended him for the part. Famously, they beat on each other in every Scorsese flick they work in together. :D

      He was awesome. I was shocked he wasn’t amongst the Oscar noms for this flick. What can you do?

  10. I didn’t have a chance to reply to your post yesterday, because I was busy at the dog park.

    I get the feeling you like the story behind Raging Bull more than the movie itself. It’s true that sometimes the story of making a movie can be more fascinating than the actual movie, like with Citizen Kane.

    Nice write up.

    • Well… that MIGHT be true, I did find the making of story fascinating here. (and that’s definitely the case with Kane, that backstory is legendary)

      But in no way do I want to sell this movie short. It’s awesome.

      And I could tell you were at the dog park. You’ve got enough pictures… seems like you’re always at the dog park. LOL

  11. Fantasic piece of work here Fogs. I absolutely adore this film and find DeNiro’s performance as one of the very best I’ve ever seen. You’ve summed it very well indeed sir. Loved this review.

  12. This is one of those titles I’ve heard of for years but never watched. One of these days I shall have to do so. I used to keep a physical list of titles I need to see but it got lost in some movie or another and I never got around to starting a new notebook.

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